Cross Country: Likhite hopes youth translates to success at Big Ten Championships

Max Schuman, Reporter

Cross Country

In cross country, a sport that places such a priority on an athlete’s ability to know where he or she is in the field to maintain his or her pace and stick to a carefully crafted strategy in the face of adrenaline and competitive instinct, conventional wisdom would seem to give more seasoned athletes an edge.

Through an up-and-down season, it’s important to remember that fact as the Cats field a very young squad week in and week out.

Northwestern’s lineup at Sunday’s Big Ten Cross Country Championships — where the team will race against 13 conference rivals for supremacy in the Big Ten — will be no different.

Check the NU entry list for the meet and you won’t find a single senior among the 10 girls entered. Five of the 10 entrants — sophomores Jena Pianin, Andrea Ostenso, and Ellen Schmitz, and freshmen Isabel Seidel and Sara Coffey — are underclassmen.

The team leaders, Pianin and Ostenso, are only in their second years in the program and have already shown huge growth over that time,  coach April Likhite said.

“I think ultimately for them it’s how they establish their goals. I think that in itself showed a lot of maturity,” Likhite said. “When they first came in, it was more, ‘This is what I’d like to do,’ and now it’s much more ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ They’re learning what it takes to be competitive collegiate distance runners at the Division I level.”

At the Pre-Nationals Invitational two weeks ago, Pianin impressed with a 34th-place finish against a nationally competitive field. She and her training partner Ostenso will be counted upon as top-two runners to finish highly and give the Cats some margin for error in their other positions.

Behind those two, Seidel finished as one of NU’s top five finishers at Pre-Nationals, an impressive performance from a freshman in her first quarter of classes.

Her coach has taken notice of her recent form.

“I think her confidence is building,” Likhite said. “Some of her teammates have taken her under their wings too, and I think it’s really helped.”

In collegiate sports, an inexperienced team one year is an experienced one the next, and the potential of her team to grow through another offseason excites Likhite.

“We’re not losing anyone, so it’s great,” she said. “Experience-wise, talent-wise, we’re really excited for the future.”

With such a young and relatively inexperienced team, issues with consistency meet to meet would be expected.

“Our biggest thing is being able to take what we’re doing in practice and do that in meets. Each meet we have one or two that step up and have a really good race, but it takes five,” Likhite said.

However, the team is not using youth and a bright future as an excuse to look past the present, and is going into the Big Ten Championships this weekend with the goal of being a real contender.

“Our goal is to be top seven (in the team standings),” Likhite said. “We’re not asking for a miracle, we’re just looking for the girls to do what they show us in practice, and if they finish in the top 50 we should be set.”

The Cats will take the starting gun for the 2014 Big Ten Cross Country Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 2 at 10:45 a.m.